Fibrin deposition is prominent in the histopathology of a number of inflammatory lung diseases. Plasmin, activated locally in the lung, can degrade not only this fibrin but potentially structural proteins important to normal lung architecture. Because alveolar macrophages are prominent in inflammatory processes of the lung, we examined the plasminogen activator (PA) activity of human alveolar macrophages. Intact alveolar macrophages from each of 10 healthy subjects expressed PA activity. There was no difference in activity between smoking and nonsmoking individuals. The activator activity was largely cell-associated, but under certain culture conditions, macrophages released a soluble activator into the culture medium. The membrane-bound activator had an apparent molecular mass of 52-55 kD in nonreduced sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) gels, and monospecific antibody to urokinase neutralized the enzyme activity. Immunoprecipitation of [35S]methionine-labeled cells showed that human alveolar macrophages actually synthesize the PA in vitro. SDS-gel analysis of the immunoprecipitated material revealed the predominant species of PA to be structurally similar to reduced, active urokinase. We also examined the role of PA in the degradation of both insoluble fibrin and elastin matrices by live macrophages. Cells degraded an insoluble fibrin matrix in the presence of plasminogen whether or not the macrophages contacted the fibrin as long as proteinase inhibitors were not in the culture medium. In the presence of serum proteinase inhibitors, macrophages still degraded a fibrin matrix, but only if they were in contact with the fibrin. Live macrophages also degraded insoluble elastin only when in contact with the elastin but could do so even in the presence of serum proteinase inhibitors. In matrices containing a mixture of fibrin and elastin, cells did not degrade elastin unless plasminogen was added to the medium. These results indicate that normal alveolar macrophages synthesize and express, probably at the cell surface, a PA. The PA is physically and immunochemically similar to urokinase but is membrane bound. The PA is critical to the degradation of fibrin matrices by normal alveolar macrophages. Under tissue conditions where elastin is embedded within other structural proteins, the activator may be rate-limiting in elastin degradation as well. The findings also suggest that live macrophage proteolytic activity is relatively insensitive to the presence of serum proteinase inhibitors, suggesting a mechanism for proteolytic lung injury even in the presence of proteinase-proteinase inhibitor balance in the soluble phase.